At the start of 2014, it seemed like many of the uncertainties of the digital comics marketplace would be settled. Comixology had solidified its position as the undisputed market leader, and when Amazon swooped in for the inevitable acquisition in April, Comixology went from being the 900-pound gorilla in the marketplace to the 900-ton gorilla. Game over, right? But six months later, Amazon’s purchase of Comixology raises nearly as many issues as it seemed to resolve.
As an independent company, Comixology was laser focused on digital distribution, and market data showed that its efforts to bring in new readers opened new opportunities for traditional retailers as well as for publishers and creators. Now that it’s a subsidiary of Amazon, other players in comics publishing are being forced to reconsider previously marginal platforms for distribution and new partnerships. Here are a few patterns that are emerging.
Fringe players are getting a second look
By the time of the Amazon acquisition, industry sources estimated that Comixology accounted for as much as 90% of the digital-comics market, a market that was sized at $90 million in 2013, according to trade news website ICv2. That left crumbs for players like iVerse Media, Madefire, and Dark Horse, especially considering that some of the remaining 10% was already going to Amazon via Kindle. Now, six months after Amazon bought Comixology, Madefire and iVerse are promoting new ways to read comics digitally (iVerse released a new reading app at New York Comic Con). Publishers who were skeptical of these platforms in March are cautiously optimistic as they try to broaden their distribution options following the Comixology purchase.
Madefire has expanded its motion book offerings with titles from DC, IDW, and other publishers, and it now offers standard non-motion digital comics for in-app purchase of an inventory-topping 2000 titles. Both its alliance with the Deviant Art social network and its launch of authoring tools for the Android platform show savvy. Its motion book development tool has been adopted by more than 35,000 users since its launch. But if Madefire wants to be a big-time storefront and not just a clever platform player, it needs to start showing revenues.
IVerse poses a different issue. Despite a sound technical platform and a shrewd understanding of the marketplace, iVerse has always been painfully slow to execute its big ideas. However, it is making strides now. According to company sources, iVerse has expanded its business to more than 70 library systems in North America and Australia, covering more than 34 million users—an arena in which Amazon and Comixology have shown next to zero interest.
A back catalogue battle is brewing
Comixology is the undisputed champion when it comes to new comics in the digital format, and because of their long-term exclusives with the biggest publishers, it will be very difficult for anyone to surpass them in the near future. But back catalogue is another story, especially with publishers offering deep discounts and using Humble Bundle to practically give away non-current issues on a promotional basis.
The more back catalogue becomes a loss-leader business, the less attention it will receive from the industry giants. That opens the door for all kinds of new models, including “all you can eat” subscriptions (such as Marvel Unlimited), digital/physical package deals, and other kinds of bundles. It’s also an area that any new player could enter, under the radar of the incumbents.
Google needs a partner
Google is not in the publishing or retail business per se, but the company competes with Amazon at the ecosystem level, fighting for the attention and loyalty of consumers. Much was made of Comixology’s public break with Apple in discontinuing in-app purchases on iOS after the Amazon acquisition, but Google, with Android, controls 75% of the global mobile-device platform market. The revenue that Comixology pushed through its app, and the central role that comics currently play in pop culture, makes this very tough for Google to ignore. It seems likely that any company that can emerge as a viable alternative to Comixology will attract the attention and support of Google, and possibly others in the same league as Apple, Sony, and Microsoft.
Dark Horse Digital needs… help
There is no polite way to say this: Dark Horse’s app was already falling behind in 2012. The company has left piles of money on the table by cutting itself off from the broader market and denying readers a decent digital experience.
On the upside, this situation has kept Dark Horse from getting entangled with Comixology, even at the level of core technology (Comixology tech powers most of the industry’s “white label” publisher apps, including DC and Marvel). Dark Horse would be well advised to get out of the app business and turn its digital distribution over to a competent partner. That presents a good opportunity for anyone ready.
Content and platforms are separating
Now that the paid market is fairly well established, publishers and distributors are backing away from unpopular and ineffective DRM and moving to distribute content through open, portable file formats like CBZ and PDF. Comixology made DRM optional on its platform over the summer; iVerse announced that its next-generation reader will allow content to be imported even if it wasn’t purchased through the app; Madefire’s “print” (non-motion) books are essentially PDFs. Smaller distributors like Thrillbent are going in the same direction.
Freeing the content from a specific app and platform is a much better deal for consumers and publishers (assuming the latter are less worried about piracy), but it’s a curious development for distributors. In the early days of digital distribution, embedding the comic book into the viewing app was seen as necessary for both security and for locking the audience in to a specific platform. This is how Comixology initially consolidated its hold on the market in 2011–2012. Of course, it had in-app purchasing back then as well.